By David Conte
He arrived at Berlin’s Tegel airport at eleven in the morning on a Saturday. The American Tourist suitcase by his side, the previous year’s Christmas gift from his mother, was bursting at the seams. Standing there, slumped, hand in his pocket, he had a heightened sense of awareness by the fact that he was there, finally, after having heard all about her formative years: the history of the family in the East and their lives—her limited experiences—before the wall came down. She was twenty-four now.
Mumbling this and that, he wondered where she was. In America, questions were pummeled with logical, righteous answers. He’d even been nicknamed “the problem solver” at the family-owned insurance company where he had worked, but now, things were going to be different. There were the unknowns of new territory to contend with—he’d have to accept the tacit uncertainty. It was crazy, but so what? The famous Einstein quote correctly interpreted or not, might wholeheartedly be applied: “Falling in love is not at all the most stupid thing that people do — but gravitation cannot be held responsible for it.”
Through the airport window, he watched the foreign taxis make their entrance and exit. On top of his bag the Motorola phone did a balancing act. He checked it. Still nothing. With a careful eye on his luggage, he shuffled through a nearby set of electronic doors. Once outside, he took in the deep air that had looked so uniquely appealing from the airport window. In the chill for no more than a few seconds and, again, he began to think about her.
When she wore that green sweater, especially, not a fancy Cardigan, but that comfortable-looking, nifty sweater, he knew there was something about her. On the sidewalk near Hunter College, and then after on the six train downtown, he had realized the discovery: that clever combination of auburn hair, fair skin, and emerald. The inside mattered first, though: deference to his amusing anecdotes and words that made him think. It’s what kept him coming back for more—date nights, dinner with friends, the MET, Central Park walks, riding across the Brooklyn Bridge on rented blue city bikes, pizza and bagels and what they found in New York that they loved more than in any other city in the world. If fate hadn’t showed up at Melanie Walters’ party, who knows whose arms either of them would’ve wound up in? That they were still grateful in spite of an unfortunate departure back home to Europe for her design career was a testament to their lasting commitment.
LUFTHANSA FLIGHT 450. He peered incessantly at the arrival gate door. Thoughts of their happy life surfaced. Time passed. The lethargy was beginning to wear him down to a fraction of himself. If he had his druthers, he’d have collapsed right there on the floor; things could be extreme like that. “I need a drink,” he said aloud, as if she were right there next to him. What do you want, honey? Nearly twenty-four hours ago, they were sitting together at the breakfast bar: he drank coffee while she ate cherry tomatoes with Brie on dark bread. Separate flights, she had rationalized, would add mystery. Not to mention hers was being paid for by her employer. Is this what forever felt like?
“Want a gum?”… “He takes water” … “I’m feeling squeezy.” Tightening his baseball cap, he let out a warm chuckle. Often, he would make the correction, but when the innocent look and the accent he downright adored distracted in such a pleasant manner, it just wasn’t worth it, despite her being adamant about wanting to learn to speak English fluently.
Three hours later. The grayness of the season fashioned heavy faces upon worn-out passengers. He went over to Kaiser’s. Saying nothing, he purchased a bottle of water. It produced no relief for his slim, thirty-year-old body. Still, he had rapture and tales from a year of romantic interludes. But this seemed only to fuel the anticipation.
While fiddling with the zipper on his parka, he noticed, out of the corner of his eye, a complacent-looking, petite brunette. She had an angled bob haircut and an upper body swimming in fabric. Beside her sat a young man, leaning up against the large airport window. He glanced over at the two of them. Setting her in a fixed gaze, he perceived the act as neither an infatuation nor a lustful gesture but rather an innocuous show of interest in an ordinary woman, someone modest even, in her mannerisms. That’s the best he could tell.
“Was läuft morgen Abend im Kino?” she said.
“Das weiß ich nicht,” the young man replied.
The subtle movements, the soft tone—could she be the sister? While he had never ventured out of his comfort zone before, he wondered, anyway, about life beyond one`s home base and the confines of his Manhattan existence. This could be his brave new world.… With the accidental drop of a purse, he took odd delight in monitoring their activities. He even turned to look away at one point, almost as a form of punishment. The noise over the loud speaker, the vapid travelers filing in and out, began to irk him.
He walked the floor near his arrival gate, evaluating the passerby. The imagined foreign appeal was a farce. It was nowhere like his home, which he now fearfully clung to in his thoughts. On a nearby window ledge he sat down. Leaning back against the spotty glass, he extended one leg to the floor while his hand cupped the other knee. Lips pressed together tightly in a frown-like scowl, for anyone that came within his range, it spelled trouble. Real trouble. Eventually, the disapproving glares became comfortable after a while.
This had to be her. Carrying a dozen or so flowers, she had tanned skin and a round but vogue face, a scattering of freckles on the nose. Evidenced by a maternity style black-knit sweater over tight jeans, her hips were slightly wide and unlike what he’d imagined. When she neared, the smile she gave dazzled: a white ribbon of notably perfect teeth. If only by accident, her hand brushed up against his leg as she jockeyed for position among the small crowd of people. He could smell the lavender, with its calming effect, jumping off her skin.
It surprised him, though, now considering it, that he had never seen a picture of her. At Melanie’s wedding week in Charleston, on a morning of photo books and coffee with the old host family, she never came up in conversation. It struck him as peculiar. In fact, she had been absent from every one of the cell phone pictures he scrolled through as they lay on the beach at Fire Island. And the wallet-size photos she showed him when they did this funny thing of emptying out the contents of their wallets on the farmer’s porch of the Bed and Breakfast in Ogunquit. They’d been together a year and a half. Why all he got was, “My sister got the good genes,” he didn’t know. Then again, he never bothered to ask.
The young lady and man by the window were gone now. He’d left to read a magazine standing, lost track of time. But the other girl was still there, holding the bouquet of flowers. She was buried in the small crowd of people waiting to greet their friends or loved ones. A skinny hipster wearing a black hoodie and a sensible pair of European sneakers stood behind her. His hand caressed the back of her neck. He checked, periodically, a sleek, smart mobile phone. The girl could manage nothing less than a cheerful demeanor, her attention directed at the door to the arrival gate, which was closed. A fair enough distance away, he watched their faces as the door to the gate eventually opened, one or two and a few solemn passengers at a time coming through. She hadn’t arrived yet. The wait had been so long that even a vestige of what was to come would be as foreign as the airport he inhabited. As he momentarily fished through his carry-on, crumbling up a receipt, sighing over the abundance of loose American coins, he had no real sense of himself anymore. It was the beginning of a new life. On her terms. In her country.
He started at the freckles on the girl’s face. With an Eva Marie Saint smile, she intoxicated him like nature on the senses when it’s calm and bright and abounding with potential.
“Honey!” said a voice growing louder as it neared. “What a terrible delay. And the flight was really bad.”
He was clutching his carry-on. “Honey? What are you doing? My sister says they wait outside for us.”
The words coming from a partner whose feelings of a deep and special love were mutual drifted into the background, unheard. In an instant, her puzzled expression changed to profound disappointment. She watched as he became entranced, his lustful eyes knowing only the girl who waited with flowers.